DC Comics presents us with one of the most fascinating superheroes of all time: Batman. Arguably his super power is his immense wealth and equally immense intelligence, but he does not, in fact, have any super-human powers in his own universe. In this way, Batman is thought of to be one of us, a human who stands amongst Gods. However, is Batman really one of us, aided only by a strong mind and a family fortune? Do we want him to be one of us? And do we want to be him?
Today, I’ll be looking into what makes Batman the caped crusader we know and love and asking an important question: are we, in fact, all Bat people?
This debate was brought up several months ago by vlogging brothers John and Hank Green, wherein John argues that Batman was very much a privileged man who was playing out a fantasy which did not help Gotham as much as he wants to believe. After all, Batman could arguably give Gotham all of his technology and economic resources in order to combat crime from its real sources: poverty and lack of jobs. As John puts it: “Batman is just a rich guy with an affinity for bats who’s playing out his insane fantasy.” Hank, however, argued that Batman was a hero of the people, meant to represent our fears and anxieties which is why we want to celebrate him so. Batman is a symbol and thus to read him as a symbol, he is us and our choice to do good: “We are not the heroes earth needs but the heroes Earth just happened to get.”
Both sides have well crafted arguments, despite their very different methods of reading the character. Having done some extensive research on this most beloved of superheroes for a paper I hope to publish, I am ready to opine with my own theory. I am going to argue an in-between reading, taking elements from both arguments. In short, we are not Bat people (nor should we be) but Batman is not just some rich guy who likes to play kung-fu dress up. Instead, Batman, as a symbol and as an active character in his own universe, is the power of ultimate choice.
Philosopher Thomas Hobbes created the concept of the “sovereign,” essentially a person who can act outside of the law and make choices for all of us, a sort of judge and jury combination. That metaphor in The Dark Knight where Dent compares Batman to the Roman emperors is not a coincidence. Batman makes huge decisions about what is right and what is fair. To look at just the Christopher Nolan movies as a reference, Batman does multiple terrible and illegal things for what he believes is the better good. He spies on people using their phones, he threatens and beats several people, he destroys buildings, he destroys Gotham’s infrastructure and public transportation services. If a terrorist did this, or even our own governments, we’d be furious and terrified. When Batman does it, however, we cheer and we overlook the damage because in the end, we see the big picture.
We see why Batman does what he does and how it truly is for the greater good, at least the way the narrative frames it. Batman keeps himself in check with his two rules: no killing and no guns. This does halt his ultimate efficacy — after all, the villains always come back bigger, badder and deadlier than before. However, we respect his boundaries, laud them as self control, and revel in that Gotham will likely never know true peace.
We, however, are not Batman and we certainly don’t want to be him. Just because Batman does not actively kill does not mean he never makes life and death decisions. For example, in The Dark Knight Rises, when Batman is flying around the city trying to get to the reactor, he has to dodge several heat seeking missile, which he most does by having them smash into buildings. Buildings people might have been living or hiding in. And even if they weren’t in the floor, or even the building, that was hit per se, that doesn’t mean people escaped unscathed because of it. Batman makes these decisions all the time, decisions that would break the psyche of lesser men. Hell, we see it absolutely destroy Harvey Dent.
In The Dark Knight, Nolan throws in cues that Dent is Batman’s mirror image, someone whose willing to step outside of the system just enough to get things done for the greater good. Dent says he is willing to die for his beliefs, and makes choices that endanger others in order to get his way. One of those decisions, using himself as bait for the Joker, gets his fiancee (and Batman’s love interest) killed in a horrifyingly painful fiery blast. Batman stands at the site of the accident and bows his head in sorrow, knowing that he was partially to blame, and while he mourns Rachel, he still does what’s best for Gotham. Dent, on the other hand, is severely traumatized and cannot deal with the terrible guilt he has over causing Rachel’s death. His trauma and grief drive him to insanity and he chooses to enact his own warped sense of justice, one which will fundmentally destroy Gotham if unchecked. This is the reality of the sovereign: making the choices that no one else will make can make.
No, my dear readers, we are not Bat people, we’re not even Robins, we’re the citizens of Gotham. We cheer for our savior, we hail his accomplishments and tell stories of his victories and his occasional failures. We wear his symbol, we tout his virtues and explain away his faults. We want to believe we could be Batman, just like he wants us to be Batman. We buy into the same lie as he does: Gotham can and is worth saving, no matter the cost, no matter the bodies, no matter the collateral damage. But deep down, we want to leave the kind of decisions it takes to support that lie to someone else, someone we can trust, someone we can relate to, someone who struggles and falls but ultimately gets back up to keep fighting.
That’s not to say that Batman is mentally stable. In fact, it’s because Bruce Wayne is quite mentally ill, processing through some serious trauma and uses the Batman costume as a coping mechanism. In order to achieve the goal with which he is obsessed, he needs to detach himself from the human and become the ideal, which is how he can make the decisions a sovereign can and survive as he does. Dent, as good as he is, is crushed by the inhuman responsibility. Batman is not human and can bear the weight of the choices Batman, not Wayne, makes.
Batman is a malleable symbol for good in a world of darkness and evil, and so even if Wayne is using it for his own personal purposes, it is a symbol we can all get behind. In that way, we are all Bat people, but most of us are definitely not ready to put on a cape and cowl and punch deadly super villains in the face on our single minded quest for a better world.